Early Baseball Addict, Sir Chentung Liang Cheng

Probably the most famous baseball-addicted member of the Chinese Educational Mission [to the U.S. in the 1870s] was Liang Pixu, also known as Liang Pe Yuk, Pi Yuk, and, later, as Sir Chentung Liang Cheng. A member of the final detachment of students, he was just twelve years old when he arrived in the United States in 1875. He was in his third year of college preparatory work at Phillips Andover Academy when the mission was scuttled in 1881. Liang Pixu would return to the United States years later as China’s top diplomatic representative, but not before he gained a measure of fame in New England as a clutch-hitting baseball star. His reputation was made in a game between Phillips Andover Academy and Phillips Exeter Academy in 1881, just weeks before the Chinese Educational Mission was called home.

Andover and Exeter were bitter rivals. The two schools were founded just five years apart–Andover in 1778 and Exeter in 1783–and were located just twenty-five miles (forty kilometers) from each other–Andover in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts and Exeter in the southeastern corner of New Hampshire. They attracted the elite of New England, who, like students everywhere, were prone to measure their pride as readily in athletics as in academics. The first time the two schools met on a baseball field was in 1878, the centenary of Andover’s founding, when Exeter crushed Andover 11-1. Three years later, though, Andover got its revenge with a 13-5 win at Exeter. The star of that sweet victory was outfielder Chentung Liang Cheng, who drove in three runs with a pair of key extra-base hits under ugly circumstances. Seeing a Chinese student wearing the flannel baseball uniform of their bitter rivals, the Exeter fans behaved predictably. They greeted Chentung Liang Cheng with derisive ethnic jeers that played on the racial stereotypes of the times, yelling: “Washee, washee; chinkee go back benchee.” Chentung Liang Cheng ignored the taunts and responded by hitting the first pitch he saw for a two-run triple. An inning later, he doubled home another run.

Judging from accounts of other baseball games of the times, the ethnic jeers that greeted Chentung Liang Cheng at Exeter were but a trivial annoyance. An Andover official recalled arriving at another baseball game on that campus and finding “the air blue from the smoke of exploding firecrackers hurled at the players by the respective opposition. In addition, a small cannon was installed near first base. Loaded with grass and dirt, from time to time it added to the hazards of trying to play on the diamond itself. Any base runner had to bury his face in his arms to protect his eyes, if not his life.” Baseball games in New England at the time were chaos–much as they would be in Korea a century later.

There was chaos of a different kind when Chentung Liang Cheng and his Andover teammates returned home from their win over Exeter. In a speech he delivered twenty-two years later to mark the 125th anniversary of the founding of Phillips Academy, Sir Chentung Liang Cheng described the scene. “When the train arrived with the victorious nine, the whole school turned out to welcome (us) with torchlights, a brass band and an omnibus drawn by enthusiastic students with long rope,” he recalled. “Even Rome could not have received Caesar with greater enthusiasm and pride when he returned from his famous campaigns in triumph.”

The joy of baseball and of that triumphant moment stayed with Chentung Liang Cheng the rest of his remarkable life. After returning to China, he spent years in service of the Qing Dynasty government, rising steadily through the diplomatic ranks. In 1897, while serving in London as secretary to the Special Chinese Embassy to Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations, Liang Cheng was named an Honorary Knight Commander of Michael and George. At that time, he placed his Western “courtesy name,” Chentung, before his family name to more readily conform to British custom. Had he failed to do so, his English-speaking friends inevitably would have called him Sir Liang, which would have been as wholly inappropriate as referring to Winston Churchill as Sir Churchill after his knighthood. Decorum decrees the nomenclature should be Sir Winston and Sir Chentung.

The crowning moment of Sir Chentung’s diplomatic career came on July 12, 1902, when he became China’s minister to the United States–the emperor’s ambassador to Meiguo–a post he held until July 3, 1907. He was a natural at the job, fostering good relations on every level, from the White House to the New England schoolrooms where he had gotten his education years earlier.

In 1905, three decades after he left China as a twelve-year-old student, Sir Chentung wrote an article for a youth magazine in the United States in which he used baseball, among other games, to explain the wonders of life in his adopted country. “In a Chinese school it is all work and no play,” he wrote. “There is no intermission from morning till night except for meals. There is no recess during school hours. There are no regular holidays, like Saturdays and Sundays, to break the monotony of daily routine. There is no summer vacation to look forward to as a season of relaxation and freedom.” Things were different in the United States. “Here work is seasoned with play. Baseball, football, and other athletic sports furnish the necessary outlets for the escape of the superfluous energy of youth. In fact, what is positively forbidden to a schoolboy in China may be freely enjoyed to the full in America.” The lengthy article was accompanied by a line drawing of a batter swinging at a ball and two photographs–one showing Liang Cheng in his Andover baseball uniform and one showing him as he appeared in 1903, dressed in elegant Chinese robes.

Liang Cheng was proud of his baseball experience and believed his proficiency at such an intrinsically American game helped his diplomatic career in Washington. Once, shortly after taking his post, Sir Chentung met U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, who said an old friend recently told him he thought the new Chinese minister played baseball for Andover and helped win a championship with a key hit in the 1880s. Sir Chentung happily confirmed the story, and Roosevelt asked who had been the best player on that Andover team? The new minister temporarily abandoned his Chinese manners and diplomatic reserve and replied simply, he was. “From that moment the relations between President Roosevelt and myself became ten-fold stronger and closer,” Liang Cheng said.

SOURCE: Taking in a Game: A History of Baseball in Asia, by Joseph A. Reaves (U. Nebraska Press, 2002), pp. 24-27

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